Lost Generation

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Lost Generation

Lost Generation: An epithet used to describe the generation of young American writers disillusioned by the senseless death and destruction of World War I, which was then called the Great War. As a group, these writers rejected what they viewed as a materialistic, hypocritical society that falsely espoused puritanical Victorian mores; many became expatriates in the 1920s, clustering especially in Paris and London. Bohemian and cosmopolitan, they embraced modernism and the avant-garde. Most of these expatriates returned in the 1930s, during the social and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression.

The phrase Lost Generation entered literary and popular circles with the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), which begins with the epigraph “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway borrowed the phrase from American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein, who had remarked to him, “All of you young people who served in the war. You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway later declared in A Moveable Feast (1964), a memoir of his life in Paris, that he considered the phrase to be merely “splendid bombast” and that Stein had picked it up from the owner of a Parisian garage.

Notable writers of the Lost Generation, aside from Hemingway, have traditionally been said to include Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Important female writers of the era rediscovered by Shari Benstock in Women of the Left Bank (1986) include Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner, and Jean Rhys. Fitzgerald expressed the view of the Lost Generation toward the Great War in Tender Is the Night (1933) through protagonist Dick Diver’s comments on the Battle of the Somme:

“This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer… . See that little stream — we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”